Fred Burmer wasn’t familiar with Lion’s Choice when a recruiter reached out in January. In the 1967-founded brand’s home market of St. Louis, close to 50 percent of the population wasn’t either. But the other half? They belong to a cult-like fanbase few brands in America can truly appreciate. A local radio legend even has the logo tattooed on his arm.
“I immediately started to do some homework on it, and the thing that stood out right away was just this level of brand loyalty that the brand has,” Burmer says. “If you say something negative about Lion’s Choice, they will come to the defense of Lion’s Choice really quick. And that’s what struck me.”
Burmer was publicly named CEO in March. He came over with four decades of quick-service experience, including executive leadership roles at companies like PepsiCo and Yum! Brands. Burmer served on the board of the Franchise Holders Association representing the interests of 500 franchise organizations within Yum! Since 2019, he’s held the COO role at mid-Atlantic-based Yum! franchisee RC Group. Burmer’s fast-food career actually began at the University of Central Florida as a part-timer for a local Pizza Hut. He’d ultimately help the market scale to over 50 stores.
Burmer stepped in for Michael “Kup” Kupstas, who retired at the end of March after 50 years in the business, including six at Lion’s Choice.
Burmer says the brand reminded him of companies like Harley Davidson. “What CEO wouldn’t love to have the opportunity to be a steward of a brand with that kind of loyalty?” he says. “The second piece of it was the intent to grow.”
At over 30 locations, Lion’s Choice sits at a unique inflection. Burmer doesn’t doubt its customer sentiment or the reasons behind that fierce loyalty. But there’s clear whitespace to add to the faithful, even, as mentioned, within the same city where it’s dug generational roots.
The fact half of the marketplace hadn’t heard of the brand, Burmer says, surprised him. “That was hard to believe because everybody I’ve talked to knows about it,” he explains. “Whenever somebody asks me, ‘what brought you here,’ I tell them Lion’s Choice, and everybody has a story. It’s usually some type of sentimental story that takes them back.”
So really, Burmer’s first task to let new guests in on the secret. It’s a good place to begin, he says, and one that drew him to Lion’s Choice after years of working with companies that had already pushed against their growth ceilings. Lion’s Choice is relatively saturated in St. Louis proper and the surrounding suburbs. Yet there’s wide-open opportunity to build awareness, Burmer says.
Where does that storytelling begin? The reason people commit to Lion’s Choice isn’t a marketing gimmick or point of mystery. The fast casual is straightforward with a hero item—roast beef. Only in this case, Burmer says, there’s no competitor to the effort and quality of what Lion’s Choice puts on the plate, which is why core customers buy-in and don’t turn back.
The roast beef is top round and prepared in labor intensive fashion. It’s hand-trimmed at the producer, “which is something that’s very hard to find,” Burmer says. Not every beef producer has the capacity to work with Lion’s Choice, meaning it’s exclusive with who can supply the beef. The product is then slow roasted for three hours every day at the store—not a commissary. It’s sliced extra thin to order and served medium rare on a lightly toasted buttered bun. Lion’s Choice tops the sandwich with a dash of proprietary seasoning, the same as it’s done for 50-plus years. “It is premium roast beef,” Burmer says. “It’s kind of like comparing a Denny’s prime rib dinner to a Morton’s prime rib dinner.”
The food is an equity that dates back to day one. Marv Gibbs and Arthur Morey opened “Red Lion Beef” in Ballwin, Missouri, and began dishing top round beef in a family-friendly setting. The restaurant was renamed Lion’s Choice as a nod to an old saying that meant you had the best of something. By 1969, the second location opened in Creve Coeur.
Ever since taking the gig, Burmer says he’s studied regional restaurant groups that made it and those that went sideways. Essentially, which iconic, beloved brands left their markets and became something they’re not; and which stayed true to their principles. In-N-Out and Chick-fil-A are two aspirations he holds up.
“In-N-Out announced about two years ago that they’re coming into the Nashville market,” Burmer says. “They announced that, but then they didn’t even plan to open their first store three years from that time so they could make sure that infrastructure was there and that supply chain was ready to go. You’ve got to be patient.”
Lion’s Choice has a couple of franchisees in the system but isn’t actively pursuing. Not yet at least. Naturally, with his background, Burmer is looking into it. And like Chick-fil-A and its deliberate history, the approach is as much about who Lion’s Choice wants to work with as the markets and foundations. “We plan on doing the same thing,” he says of being selective with franchisees. “One of the things that we’ve been talking about a lot internally is, I think it’s important, if we want to get smaller franchisees who have a passion for the brand, which again, is another component you see with the successful franchises that are out there. Even if you look at the Yum! Brands, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, KFC, they all started with, in Pizza Hut’s case, a couple of brothers in Wichita, Kansas, and they started franchising to a few people who had a passion for that brand, nice and slow and it grew into the behemoth that they are today.”
“And I think we want to be able to do the same thing.”
Burmer has begun to explore ways to make the opportunity attractive from both ends. For instance, working to cost-engineer a building, from dirt to materials, that comes under the typical $2 million-plus facilities out there today.
Broadly, Lion’s Choice is tackling two key priorities before it dives into life as a franchisor. One is making sure it shores up company operations to where it’s role modeling what it wants franchisees to be able to do, Burmer says. It also needs to update ops manuals and things of that nature to ensure there’s a consistent playbook. “Right now, some of the procedures that we have are not as consistent as I’d like to see them from restaurant to restaurant,” he says. “So we’re working through tweaking those. That’s not a big project but it’s a very important project before you can really start licensing to people.”
At least initially, Burmer sees smaller franchisees entering the fold—those looking to take a smaller bite than, say, institutional investors. And Lion’s Choice would rather deal with individuals as it evolves for the long-term as well. Yet viewing a wider goal, Burmer imagines something closer to Domino’s early approach, where it scaled by providing opportunities to managers with entrepreneurial dreams. “We haven’t finalized any of that,” Burmer says, noting it’s still infant days. “But that’s what’s kind of bubbling up right now from my vision.”
But going back to the opening thought, the horizon for Burmer concerns what’s right in front of him. Lion’s Choice’s organic growth won’t necessarily come from its assets; it’s going to be sales and traffic and the amplification of the brand. His goal will be to dial up marketing and advertising and focus on the quality of the chain’s roast beef.
“It kind of bugs me that we’re not really necessarily getting credit from the customer in terms of the quality of it,” he says. “People come in and go, ‘man, this is awesome.’ But we want to make sure we set ourselves apart from any other roast beef concept that’s out there in terms of quality. That’s our No. 1 mission.”